Incredible journey

  • 14/07/1998

The 20th Century will soon be coming to an end. The most remarkable thing about it has been the extraordinary growth of science - the common name we give to humanity's endeavour to understand nature. The century has seen the practitioners of science mainly occupied with four key questions.

The first part of this century was marked by a quest to understand what is matter? Numerous theories have been developed and experiments conducted but the quest still goes on. The latest finding is that the tiny neutrino has a mass, an enigmatic particle which for long was not believed to have any. This issue of Down To Earth carries a fascinating article on the extraordinary efforts that have been made to determine this fact. Finally, they have concluded that this incredibly tiny particle has a mass of only 0.05 electron volts. (Electron-volts is the measure of mass used by physicists who study the tiny particles that make up matter.) We all know that atoms are incredibly tiny constituents of matter. We also know that the atom itself is made up of several particles, one of which is the proton which is found in the nucleus of the atom. One proton has a mass of one billion electron-volts. In comparison, a proton is equal in mass to some 20 billion neutrinos. This makes the neutrino incredulously tiny and almost weightless. Which is why millions of them can pass through our bodies every second and yet we feel no difference.

Not only does this discovery show how incredibly fascinating is nature, it also shows how incredibly advanced has become the human ability to measure.

With a growing understanding of the nature and structure of matter, the second half of the 20th century saw scientists asking yet another question: What is the nature, origin and the structure of our universe, that celestial body which includes all the beautiful stars, planets and moons that we see every night? Just like the first question, despite all the advances that have been made, scientists are still far from a full understanding.

In the 1950s, human curiosity led people to enquire into a third critical question: What is life? Once scientists understood the structure of the dioxyribonucleic acid molecule ( dna ) - an extraordinary structure which not only has the ability to code an enormous amount of information but also an ability to reproduce itself - a whole new Pandora's Box began to open up and the last half century has probably seen greater advances in Life Sciences than the Physical Sciences even though in recent years, the Hubble Telescope has helped even to send down incredibly pretty pictures of stellar objects. Humanity is reaching a point where it is beginning to play around with life forms itself, raising serious questions about ethics and practicality.

While one can argue that interest in the first three questions listed above began essentially out of human curiosity, interest in the fourth important question of this century grew in the last quarter essentially out of necessity. And that question is: What is the intricate web of nature, the relationship between living organisms and between the living and the non-living? With advances in physical and life sciences, human beings soon acquired an extraordinary ability to intervene into natural processes, and began to find that they were being confronted with surprises that threatened the very survival of human beings.

Substances called chloroflurocarbons which were thought to be one of the most stable compounds on Earth, as late as the 1970s, were found to be destroying the ozone layer in the higher reaches of the atmosphere in the 1980s. A process which would expose human beings to deadly ultra-violet rays from space. The carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels has been steadily accumulating in the atmosphere and is today threatening to heat up the planet and change the world's climate. But finding out when changes in weather can be attributed to this build-up of carbon dioxide has been intensely complex - especially separating out the natural variations in weather from those variations caused by human activity. Scientists have found that pesticides like ddt used in Punjab somehow make their way to the Arctic threatening the animals and humans living there.

Unravelling this integrated character of nature has become one of the biggest scientific challenges of the last quarter of the 20th century. It is clear that these four quests - that is, understanding matter, the universe, life, and the web of nature - is going to remain with the human society well into the 21st century. But human inquiry over the last one hundred years, despite all its pitfalls and problems has undoubtedly been an outstanding one.

As Indians we probably need to ask ourselves one question: Why has the latter half of this century passed us without any outstanding contributions from us? It was in the first half of this century, when India was a colony and there was hardly any state investment in research, we produced J C Bose, S N Bose and C V Raman. Ronald Ross, too, got his Nobel Prize in India for discovering the malaria parasite working out of a dingy lab in Calcutta. But though post-independent India has seen a lot of science, it has largely been mediocre. We need to ask ourselves what is it that we have been doing wrong despite all our good intentions?

- Anil Agarwal .

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